Lawrence Grossberg (2005) Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics, and America’s Future.

Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers. ISBN 1-59451-113-6.

Matt Hills

In a sense, I’m probably one of Lawrence Grossberg’s intended readers for this volume — somebody who is generally sympathetic to Leftist politics, and specifically committed to thinking through (and practicing) those kinds of cultural politics which have been most strongly connected to something called ‘cultural studies’. For, as the author notes (168), the Left and, by implication, versions of cultural studies, perhaps need to wake up to their complacencies and self-contradictions, whereby they assume in advance that they ‘have all the answers’. Should I feel chastened by this, looking to relate it to my own experiences in and out of the academy?

In another sense, I come to this book very much as an outsider — a UK-based scholar placed, at this moment in time, somewhat to one side of the United States and its political histories, its struggles, and the details of its media coverage. For, as Grossberg admits (xiii), this is a highly ‘national’ book, concerned with US-centric debates, even though they may have relevance and resonances elsewhere. Should I feel affected by this, looking for parallels and applications to my own cultural experiences?

It may seem odd to say so, but I found this sizeable book more interesting when it addressed me as an outsider than when it sought to persuade me, as a certain kind of insider, of the errors of particular academic-political strategies. Vaguely paradoxically, I recognised something of myself in Caught in the Crossfire‘s cultural specificities — no doubt in part a result of Britain’s cultural proximity to the US. Yet I couldn’t quite find myself mirrored or imaged in the book’s more transcultural, or even subcultural, pronouncements about Leftist cultural studies. And in this review I want to offer a few brief and speculative thoughts as to why this might have been so, indicating along the way what I found invigorating and exciting, and what I felt to be occasionally problematic about Caught in the Crossfire.

The book’s focus on America’s alleged ‘war on kids’ – in which widely circulating discourses of childhood and youth have across the last decade or so increasingly tended to demonise kids – is rather curiously structured. After presenting a mass of statistical, anecdotal and ethnographic ‘evidence’ that American kids are currently the victims of systematic scapegoating and mistreatment within US society — in terms of the surveillance and regimes of discipline they are placed under, and the medicalisation and criminalisation of youth — Grossberg then moves on to examine competing ‘explanations’ of American youth’s alleged misdemeanours. This section — Blaming the Media; Blaming Racism; Blaming the Parents; Blaming Capitalism; Blaming the ‘Family Crisis’ — then returns some seventy-two pages later with the subheader ‘Blaming Progress’, as Grossberg finally puts up his preferred account of the sociocultural pathologisation of a generation of youths. In between, the book takes a massive detour through accounts of the ‘contemporary political field’, detailing cultural histories and critiques of Neoliberalism, New Conservatism and the Left. The relevance of these chapters to the book’s main thesis or argument is not always evident across a seventy-two page digression. It’s almost as if Grossberg has written two books (let’s counterfactually imagine them as Affective Politics and the Coming Modernity and Mis-representing American Youth), and spliced them together as a kind of A-plot and B-plot to his narrative, before choosing to cut between the two in order to heighten suspense. . . or delay readers’ sense-making. Evidently this is a highly deliberate authorial decision, but it feels repeatedly to me as if the book’s subject somehow isn’t academically ‘big’ enough for its author — firstly Grossberg factors his political-field history into the equation, and then he promptly sets off on another detour: this time one aimed at linking the symbolic and cultural plight of US youth to debates over modernity itself. I can’t help but feel that this sometimes awkward hybrid would have worked better as two books.

And yet I found much of interest in Grossberg’s arguments over youthfulness and society. An expert at puncturing political rhetorics, of course, Grossberg highlights many, many absurdities of recent US culture, among which can be found his discussion of the medicalisation of youth behaviour. A range of syndromes or symptoms displayed by the young are now supposedly treatable by therapeutic drugs — some of which are barely distinguishable from cocaine — and yet the ‘war on drugs’ continues even while pathologised drugs are likely to be far less harmful than prescription ones (see 32-36). Cutting across this situation, Grossberg argues that mental health services for American youth are woeful: a similar situation has very recently been highlighted in UK media, where there is a shared tendency in the British context to substitute prescribing drugs for funding the adequate provision of mental health services.

A number of other unanticipated parallels and resonances struck me as being of considerable significance. In his discussion of the success of the New Right, Grossberg suggests that this was partly down to its use of think-tanks, intimating that the Left could benefit from such an openness to think-tanking its policies and practices. Yet in the UK context, New Labour had its own crucial think-tanks (and academic sponsors in the form of Anthony Giddens) — so it’s as if Grossberg is advocating a change which was made long ago across the Atlantic, and arguably not always with especially progressive or even Leftist outcomes. But the unexpected collision of US and UK self-narratives here provides intriguing food for thought.

I also recognised other aspects of my own research interests (the horror genre) in Grossberg’s occasional returns to analysing the imagery of monstrosity. As well as commenting on how readily US youth are represented as ‘aliens and monsters’ (20), he also suggests that alienated, misrecognised youth who have been denied any sense of their value to the nation’s future ‘find their own lived sense of their value in other dimensions and activities’ such as supernatural pop culture narratives, ‘in which supernatural or extraterrestrial threats are defeated by kids, while adults. . . serve as victims and the icons of denial’ (56). Horror’s narratives are subtly threaded through much of this book — whether in the demonisation of moral panics, drawing on the genre’s tropes, or the popularity of horror fictions (commented on by a range of other youth ethnographers). Though it isn’t the main focus of the book by any means, I would say that Caught in the Crossfire very usefully provides compelling material for an innovative and genre-based analysis of the discourses surrounding US youth.

To be sure, this isn’t a traditionally ‘academic’ book — for instance, Grossberg calls ethnography ‘hanging out’ with a group of kids, and pretty much leaves his methodological reflection to that observation (53). Obviously this sort of comment wouldn’t pass muster in a textbook or research monograph, and reading it with my ‘academic-purist’ hat on, I felt occasionally irked by the book’s tone, but Grossberg has most certainly ‘been there and done that’ in terms of performing his academic credentials: by contrast, this is seemingly his cross-over ‘trade press’-style call-to-arms. For a reader such as myself, familiar with much of Grossberg’s earlier work — written more ‘in’ and ‘for’ the academy — there’s a sense of this book being a kind of greatest hits compilation. Yes, there’s much interesting new material, but then there’s also old favourites like the ‘thousand points of light’, as well as references to ‘affect’ and ‘mattering maps’ (see 230-37). At times, this reads like a boiled-down version of We Gotta Get Out of This Place, or as Gramscian-style and Stuart Hall-esque cultural studies carried out without the bibliography (but still with most of the ‘big names’ in place). It clearly represents one version of interventionist writing which believes that reaching people ‘where they are’ means doing away with some of the baggage of ‘academic’ writing (but which nevertheless still aims for the big targets, and expects readers to tolerate digressions). In a sense, this ambition and this reaching-out for new audiences needs to be recognised, applauded and celebrated. But it also worries me, again with my ‘academic-purist’ hat on, that such a reaching-out is premised at least partly on a splitting of how academics are assumed to write and read, and how cultural Others are assumed to do so.

If I productively recognised elements of older and more recent UK cultural history in much of Grossberg’s US-based analysis, then why didn’t I see so much of myself in his cultural-studies-for-everybody? Not, I’d like to think, because I am an elitist wedded to the moral dualisms of ideology-critique, but rather because I’d argue that there is a strange absence at the heart of this otherwise fascinating book.

It is written by an ‘authority’ or hegemon in the field of cultural studies, and yet while it concerns the fate of a generation ‘out there’ which Grossberg doesn’t belong to, it seems to have surprisingly little to say about new generations of scholars in their thirties (and younger) who have entered into ‘cultural studies’ as a project or reflexive narrative of self. In short, Grossberg very strangely has nothing to say, here at least, about the generationality of cultural studies itself, and about how it may well involve a very specific (academic-subcultural) sense of time in which past, present and future are linked in narratives of succession, if not via the progress of knowledge. Grossberg’s key thesis is that ideas of time and history have been eroded in America’s political and wider culture, with this resulting in the devaluation of youth and in narratives of social and individual ‘history’ which are either apocalyptic or chaotically random in tone (there’s more than a hint of Jamesonian postmodernism lurking somewhere behind all this). But Grossberg doesn’t seem to consider that his very own field of expertise has a radically different sense of time and history, and a different sense of ‘youth’ viewed as the future of cultural studies and political intervention. Though Grossberg argues that the Left may, along with neoliberalism and new conservatism, have contributed to the collapse of political narratives of ‘history’ (182-3), he doesn’t analyse the possibility of directly drawing upon different academic-subcultural conceptions of, and resources for, joined-up ‘history’. If narratives of history and ‘progress’ have been undermined in a series of ways in contemporary culture — as much through the creation of ‘instant’ media celebrities as through decontextualised news coverage — then can we conclude that this indicates a wholesale decline in ‘history’ as a form of cultural commonsense? What of family trees and family histories, as well as documented histories of cultural struggle? What of the museum and the archive — the collection even — as well as the commodity per se? Theseresistances to, and possible complications of, Grossberg’s account (both at the level of public and private selves) are never really taken on. Nor is another potential aspect of America’s ‘exceptionalism’ which tends to baffle Anglos such as myself: the right to bear arms (the NRA is mentioned a handful of times, but that’s about it).

Despite all its digressions, and its movements between statistical detail and ‘grand’ philosophising, this is a non-traditional academic book which seems, ultimately, to present a somewhat simplified notion of temporality as a cultural construct. Though Grossberg is keen to remind readers (in the academy?) that he realises ‘the Left’ is a fictional unity set up for the purposes of argument, he doesn’t readily apply this same recognition to discourses of ‘temporality’ and ‘history’. As a result, although political discourses of temporality are shown to be overdetermined, they still appear to be univocal in Grossberg’s argument, and are thus given a limited or caricatured position in contemporary American cultural commonsense and political culture.

On the strong plus side, however, this book seeks readers outside of cultural studies converts, and shows an admirable openness to criticising all political sides and affiliations. Rarely have I encountered such a politically engaged book which so assiduously tries not to take sides. As such, its title seems to suggest a further valence: by criticizing Left and Right, it may well be Grossberg who’ll find himself somehow ‘caught in the crossfire’ of more politically dogmatic responses to this challenging title. And as I have begun to suggest here, the book’s richness also means that it resonates productively and usefully outside of its ‘national’ context in a variety of ways.

If Caught in the Crossfire did occasionally bother me — most centrally as a result of its doubled structure and its lack of focus on cultural studies’ own academic ‘kids’, i.e. new generations of scholars — then at least the concerns it produced (for this specifically situated reader) might also be seen more positively as yet another implicit call-to-arms. In other words, perhaps new generations of cultural studies thinkers, as much as the ‘general readership’ Grossberg is courting, also need to think through their own contexts and experiences in relation to the political field so acutely analysed here. The absence of this line of thought is nothing if not a healthy provocation. And the mattering map Grossberg sets out is unusually, and refreshingly, free of dogma, political point-scoring and a priori judgements — offering up one model for next-gen cultural studies to run with.

Matt Hills is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, UK. The author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005) and How To Do Things With Cultural Theory (Hodder-Arnold, 2005) as well as many book chapters and articles, he is currently researching and writing books about the BBC TV series Doctor Who (for I.B. Tauris) and Key Concepts in Cultural Studies (for Sage).